Opinion: Why Casey Anthony 'Got Off,' and Why it Matters

Casey Anthony was acquitted yesterday of all but the least serious charges against her. Had she been convicted of the first-degree murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, she faced a possible death sentence in Florida. Instead, she is likely to be sentenced to credit for time served, at tomorrow’s sentencing hearing and to be free, by week’s end.

Millions of Americans followed the Casey Anthony trial. Many millions more say it was a complete waste of time and criticize the media for the attention and expense given to coverage of the case. One poster to the Casey Anthony Twitter feed sarcastically quipped: "So glad the media is covering this #CaseyAnthony case because the problems of the middle class are just too boring to care about." Still, I suspect a large portion of the population, claims it hasn’t been following the case, but secretly has, logging into the Twitter feed late at night, or watching Nancy Grace when no one else is watching them.

The truth is, trials have always been a source of entertainment in this country. From colonial times to the present, trials have provided the public with a source for ritual and drama. Before the dawn of mass communication, the courthouse provided one of the few diversions available.

In 1770, John Adams defended eight British soldiers and their captain, charged with killing five Massachusetts men, in what was quickly dubbed the Boston Massacre Case. The year was 1770 and no one else would take the case. Adams knew he was out of step with the popular outrage and feared for his family’s safety. Still he did not hesitate, firm in the belief that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. Adams had to cut through the popular sentiment – to win a verdict of Not Guilty for six of the men (two were convicted of manslaughter).

Neither the U.S. Constitution nor contemporaneous documents indicate that the Founders anticipated a conflict between the right to a fair trial and the guarantee of the freedom of the press to cover a case. At the same time, they were clearly aware of the dilemma. And that is why, as riveting as they may be as theater, in our system, trials are the constitutional means for preserving public order when one citizen violates the rights of others citizens or the public at large.

Criminal trials, in particular, provide protection for the rights of the criminal defendant. Our constitution balances the tension between the public’s desire for retribution against the greater societal goal of justice. The trial is the defendant shield against the societal sword of revenge.

So, the fair trial/free press debate, which was highlighted again by the Casey Anthony trial, is as old as the republic and the dilemma has long history: The robbery and murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti (1920), the so-called Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Trial” (1935), the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife (1954), which inspired the television series and movie The Fugitive, the McMartin Preschool Abuse Trials (1987-1990) and of course, the OJ Simpson murder trial (1995).

In modern America, we continue, through the news media, and now Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, to converge on the courthouse for information, enlightenment, and entertainment. Lawyers and judges have so often excoriated the “circus-like” environment at highly publicized trials that the expression has become a common catchphrase for trial reporters.

After the verdict in yesterday, defense attorney Cheney Mason (whom I have interviewed in connection with other cases), stepped to the microphone:

"I hope that this is a lesson to those of you who indulged in media assassination for three years," he said. "Bias and prejudice and incompetent 'talking heads' saying what would be … Here he took a dramatic pause and then continued: "I'm disgusted by [what] some of the lawyers that have done this. I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television and talking about cases they don't know a damn thing about."

In a free country, the right of press access to a trial and our right to cover that trial, as we see fit, has been firmly established by the U.S. Supreme Court. It falls within the right of freedom of the press. But we in the media have an awesome responsibility, with every word we speak, to get it right, to honor the process – not to corrupt it. In my view, this burden falls especially hard on those of us who are lawyers but who have chose to make a career in journalism; presumably we have a greater understanding of the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the delicate balance at play inside a criminal courtroom.

As for the verdicts in the Casey Anthony trial, the OJ Simpson trial or any other case in which the public may be dissatisfied, I commend you the greatest line from John Adam’s closing argument in the Boston Massacre case:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

The “dictates of our passion” should never determine the outcome of a criminal case - not in a free country, and certainly not under our constitutional system of justice.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.